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How just the thought of doing maths can give you brain ache

FEAR of maths can activate regions of the brain linked with the experience of physical pain.

The higher a person's anxiety of a maths task, the more it increases activity in regions of their brain associated with threat detection, and often the experience of pain itself.

Researchers Ian Lyons and Sian Beilock, from the University of Chicago, say that previous research has shown that other forms of psychological stress, such as social rejection or a traumatic break-up, can also elicit feelings of physical pain.

However, they say their study examines the pain response associated with anticipating an anxiety-provoking event.

Their results indicate the maths task itself is not painful, but merely the thought of it can be highly unpleasant.


"Maths can be difficult, and for those with high levels of mathematics-anxiety (HMAs), maths is associated with tension, apprehension and fear," the researchers said.

"Interestingly, this relation was not seen during maths performance, suggesting that it is not that maths itself hurts, rather, the anticipation of maths is painful.

"Our data suggest that pain network activation underlies the intuition that anticipating a dreaded event can feel painful.

"These results may also provide a potential neural mechanism to explain why [people with] HMAs tend to avoid maths and maths-related situations, which in turn can bias [those with] high levels of mathematics-anxiety away from taking maths classes."

"We provide the first neural evidence indicating the nature of the subjective experience of maths-anxiety."